On The Road With Townes Van Zandt
Road Songs, Townes Van Zandt, Sugar Hill Records, 1992
The main points of this review have been used to review other Townes Van Zandt CDs.
Readers of this space are by now very aware that I am in search of and working my way through various types of American roots music. In shorthand, running through what others have termed "The American Songbook". Thus I have spent no little time going through the work of seemingly every musician who rates space in the august place. From blues giants, folk legends, classic rock `n' roll artists down through the second and third layers of those milieus out in the backwoods and small, hideaway music spots that dot the American musical landscape. I have also given a nod to more R&B, rockabilly and popular song artists then one reasonably need to know about. I have, however, other than the absolutely obligatory passing nods to the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline spent very ink on more traditional Country music, what used to be called the Nashville sound. What gives?
Whatever my personal musical preferences there is no question that the country music work of, for example, the likes of George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette in earlier times or Garth Brooks and Faith Hill a little later or today Keith Urban and Taylor Swift (I am cheating on these last two since I do not know their work and had to ask someone about them) "speak" to vast audiences out in the heartland. They just, for a number of reasons that need not be gone into here, do not "speak" to me. However, in the interest of "full disclosure" I must admit today that I had a "country music moment" about thirty years ago. That was the time of the "outlaws" of the country music scene. You know, Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson). Also Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Jerry Jeff Walker. Country Outlaws, get it? Guys and gals ( think of Jesse Colter)who broke from the Nashville/ Grand Old Opry mold by drinking hard, smoking plenty of dope and generally raising the kind of hell that the pious guardians of the Country Music Hall Of Fame would have had heart attacks over (at least in public). Oh, and did I say they wrote lyrics that spoke of love and longing, trouble with their "old ladies" (or "old men"), and struggling to get through the day. Just an ordinary day's work in the music world but with their own outlandish twists on it.
All of the above is an extremely round about way to introduce the "max daddy" of my 'country music moment', Townes Van Zandt. For those who the name does not ring a bell perhaps his most famous work does, the much-covered "Pancho And Lefty". In some ways his personal biography exemplified the then "new outlaw" (assuming that Hank Williams and his gang were the original ones). Chronic childhood problems, including a stint in a mental hospital, drugs, drink, and some rather "politically incorrect" sexual attitudes. Nothing really new here, except out of this mix came some of the most haunting lyrics of longing, loneliness, depression, sadness and despair. And that is the "milder" stuff. Not exactly the stuff of Nashville. That is the point. The late Townes Van Zandt "spoke" to me (he died in 1997) in a way that Nashville never could. And, in the end, the other outlaws couldn't either. That, my friends, is the saga of my country moment. Listen up to any of the CDs listed below for the reason why Townes did.
Townes Van Zandt was, due to personal circumstances and the nature of the music industry, honored more highly among his fellow musicians than as an outright star of "outlaw" country music back in the day. That influence was felt through the sincerest form of flattery in the music industry- someone well known covering your song. Many of Townes' pieces, especially since his untimely death in 1997, have been covered by others, most famously Willie Nelson's cover of "Pancho and Lefty". However, Townes, whom I had seen a number of times in person in the late 1970's, was no mean performer of his own darkly compelling songs.
This compilation with the aptly named title, “Road Songs”, gives both the novice a Van Zandt primer and the aficionado a fine array of his core works on the road theme in one place. Start with, naturally, “Automobile Blues”, work through the longing felt in “Texas River Song”, and the pathos of “Indian Cowboy” that could serve as a secondary personal Townes anthem. Then on to the sadness of the ill-fated story of Ira Hayes. Finally, round things out with the slight hopefulness of the Lightnin’ Hopkins classic “Hello Central” and the epic tragedy of Bruce Springsteen's “Racing In The Streets”. Additionally, Townes covers The Rolling Stones classic, “Dead Flowers” and Lightnin’ Hopkin’s wryly ironic “Shorted-haired Woman Blues”. Many of these songs are not for the faint-hearted but are done from a place that I hope none of us have to go but can relate to nevertheless. This well thought out product is one that will make you too a Townes aficionado. Get to it.